Around this time every year, major newspaper and magazine editors from sea to shining sea — which is to say, all the way from Sixth Avenue in Manhattan to Tenth Avenue in Manhattan — assemble their staffs for brainstorming sessions to compile the obligatory “Best of” lists. Such lists are, of course, an entirely subjective selection of what were the most important or influential books, movies, or music of the year — hence the annual squabbles that these lists spawn among the chattering classes each holiday season.
But in perusing the New York Times’ picks for the “100 Notable Books of the Year” for 2005, we noticed something more than simple subjectivity at work: For whatever reason, six of the 61 books on the nonfiction portion of the list were authored by Times staffers, and another four by regular contributors to the paper.
All the big guns are included in the list, like Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and Times art critic Michael Kimmelman’s The Accidental Masterpiece. Then there is Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools and two more self-serving picks: 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, by Timesmen Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, and Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey by staffer Linda Greenhouse. The Dwyer/Flynn book and the Greenhouse book were actually published by the New York Times Company’s own imprint, Times Books.
To its (slight) credit, the paper does disclose that the six staffer books on the list were written by Times scribes. But the water gets a bit murkier when dealing with writers who are not on staff but who are currently under contract with the Times, sometimes as regular contributors. Take, for example, Freakonomics, which makes the paper’s list. It’s hardly a secret that the authors of the book, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, have been writing a monthly column since June for the Times Magazine called — have you guessed it? — “Freakonomics.”
Then there is George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate — admittedly a CJR Daily staff favorite — which makes the list without the Times giving a nod to the fact that Packer’s reporting for the Times Magazine on Iraq led directly to his writing the book. And there is Times contributor Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, which also makes the list, again without a nod by the paper to the relationship.
The Times is a big newspaper, and just like any newspaper or magazine, it regularly contracts with talented freelance writers to contribute pieces. If those writers happen to write good books, one could argue, so much the better for everyone involved. But once the paper singles out such a book, it should mention the relationship, as it did with the book of former executive editor Joseph Lelyveld. Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop.
The entire uncomfortable exercise speaks to the larger point of the insulated, back-slapping world of the New York media. The New York literary-journalism world is a small one, and, much as with rotating managers of Major League baseball teams, a relatively small group of people seem to keep popping up in different places, so some overlap is to be expected.
Nonetheless, for the Times’ to compile a list of notable books in which one of every six is the work of a staffer or a contributor seems to stretch the limits of credibility. After all, thousands of nonfictions books were published this year. Surely, a few of those would seem to qualify in front of some of the books written by Times contributors.
Yes, Maureen, Thomas, Michael, Kurt, Jim, Kevin, Steven, Stephen, George, Jonathan and Joe — we’re looking at you. And at the anonymous editors at the Times Sunday Book Review section who most assuredly have your backs.
Too many backs, we might venture.